Rewriting the rules for housing

Government is consulting on a number of building-related issues addressing safety and climate change, while the Queen’s Speech hints at future legislation supporting Dame Judith Hackitt’s recommendations, says Hywel Davies

Government is currently in consultation overdrive. Driven primarily by climate-change policy, the package of proposals for the Future Homes Standard, Part L and Part F is summarised on page 24. But there are also proposals on building safety, driven by the recommendations of Dame Judith Hackitt’s Independent Review of Building Regulations and Fire Safety.

Proposals to change the rules for sprinklers in taller residential buildings are still open for comment. The government’s ‘preferred option’, at least when published, is to reduce the trigger height at which sprinklers are required from 30m to 18m.

There is an option for 11m, and opportunity to propose other trigger heights – but why is the proposal 18m and not 16m, or 20m? And why 11m? It is unclear where these numbers have come from, or what the evidence is to support those choices. Interested readers are encouraged to look at the consultation page of the CIBSE website.

Beyond that, the Queen’s Speech contained half a sentence about ‘laws to implement new building safety standards’. While the exact meaning of this is unclear, it suggests we are likely to see new primary legislation to implement a number of aspects of the Hackitt review, such as the proposed new building safety regulator. That cannot be established without primary legislation.

We are certainly on the verge of significant change in the legal framework

The Building Act dates from 1984 and those familiar with it know it is due an overhaul; this could be the perfect opportunity. Certainly, the proposed Gateways under Dame Judith’s proposals will be hard to reconcile with the current rules for building notices, so perhaps they will change.

While we can only speculate on details, we are certainly on the verge of significant change in the legal framework within which most readers operate. We can expect further consultations in the months ahead.

It looks likely that the initial response will cover ‘higher risk’ buildings – taller buildings where people sleep, subject to legal definitions yet to be drafted. Initially, this will be a subset of the existing building stock, but all indications suggest that this will, in time, be extended to a wider range of buildings.

So, we may be set for a period in which there are two regimes – one for the higher-risk buildings and a less onerous regime for the rest. However, we should not be surprised to find blue-chip commercial clients looking at the new regime and the greater checks on building outcomes, and expect their supply chain to adopt it for them.

If a major contractor can follow the new regime for a high-rise residential block on the fringe of the City of London, why can they not deliver that on a prime office tower a short distance away?

Given the commitment to implement all of Dame Judith’s recommendations, we can expect further evolution of the Approved Documents. The Future Homes package proposes moving from four Approved Documents and two compliance guides to Part L to two volumes of approved guidance – for dwellings and for buildings other than dwellings.

The consultation drafts are also shorter, so some current content has gone. Dame Judith’s view was that if industry needed more guidance, industry should produce it, a challenge for CIBSE and the various industry bodies to address.

Between the drive to deliver significant real cuts in carbon emissions from buildings to meet the challenge of climate change and the ongoing reforms post-Grenfell, we have plenty to keep us busy. But there is a third front on which we need to engage.

One of the keys to managing this change is the provision of knowledge and information, and that is an essential role for CIBSE

The world continues to adopt digital technologies and processes. The British, European and international standards for building information modelling build on earlier UK developments to provide an international framework, and further standards to support the digital transformation of the construction sector are being drafted.

The sector needs to embrace these changes alongside the climate and safety-driven ones. All require adaptation, which is never easy and often provokes adverse reactions. One of the keys to managing this change is the provision of knowledge and information, and that is an essential role for CIBSE.

The demands to deliver knowledge as we move to a net zero, digital, post-Hackitt world are considerable, and need contributions from those within the sector, including many who read this Journal. Are we all ready for the journey that lies ahead?

About the author
Hywel Davies is technical director at CIBSE